Often times when people hear that a mother is nursing her four year old, they equate it with nursing a newborn, but that’s not what breastfeeding a 4 year old really looks like. Weaning is a process that naturally takes years. What this looks like in real life is a gradual decrease in both frequency and duration of breastfeeding.
I have had the opportunity to be a part of this process twice. In fact, I am still part of my youngest child’s weaning process. When my babies were newborns they were both incessant nursers. Their little bellies needed almost constant nourishment, and while it was exhausting, there was also something beautiful about how natural and biological meeting their needs was.
By the time my kids reached toddlerhood, their physical activity and exploration increased, and their time at the breast decreased. Sometimes they would nurse every hour, and other times a whole morning would go by without a nursing session. When they got hurt, were sick, or were feeling disconnected, they sought comfort from nursing. This was a gift for me as their mother, because often times I did not know what else to do.
Not only does breastfeeding provide nutrition and immunity benefits for as long as it is done, but it provides emotional connection, too.
As we bid farewell to toddlerhood, my children were mostly nursing in the morning and at night. By the time each of my children were 3.5, and without much fanfare, I one day noticed that they had gone for a couple of days without nursing. The realization was surprising to me in both cases- how could I go from having so much of my day occupied by breastfeeding, to not noticing that multiple days had gone by without nursing at all?
Because this process happened naturally, I did not have feelings of sadness or bittersweet. Instead, I was able to accept it for what it was- my child getting older and getting their nutrition and emotional comfort from something other than me.
My youngest child will be 4 in a few months. She still nurses most nights before bed and once or twice throughout each day. What is different now though, is that we can verbally communicate. If my daughter wants to nurse, but it is not convenient for me, I can ask her to wait. Most often she obliges. If she does not, I know that she is desperate and really needs the soothing connection of nursing with her mom. This was also true of my son, who is almost six.
I cannot remember the last time my son nursed. I am not even sure that I can say he is officially done. If he sustains a major injury, or is very sick, he may ask to nurse again. Many will ask “will you let him?” My answer is; “of course I will”. At some point he will lose his ability to latch and obtain milk, and I suppose it will only be then that we can say with certainty he is done.
What does breastfeeding a four year old really look like? It is infrequent, short sessions that can happen at a mutually convenient time. They look like a mother comforting her child, and providing him or her with the continued and amazing benefits of natural comfort and protection.
Jennifer Andersen writes about breaking out of societal parenting norms to live authentically with our children. She offers insights, tips, and observations on her own blog, OurMuddyBoots.com, Parenting Outside the Lines.